Netanyahu Says Israel Acts To Deny Hizballah Syrian Arms
Netanyahu, speaking at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on May 19, said the Middle East was going through its most sensitive period for decades, with the conflict in Syria at the center of the turmoil.
Netanyahu said Israel is "prepared for any scenario" to protect 'the security interests of the citizens of Israel in future."
His remarks came two weeks after Israel carried out air strikes near Damascus, which a senior Israeli source said were aimed at preventing the transfer of sophisticated Iranian weapons to Hizballah, the Lebanese Shi'ite ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Netanyahu on May 14 held talks in Russia on the Syrian crisis.
Russia is Syria's main supplier of weapons.
Meanwhile, rights watchdog Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Syrian troops backed by fighters from Lebanese militant group Hizballah have launched an attack on the rebel-held central town of Qusayr.
The London-based group said soldiers backed by tanks launched the May 19 assault after heavy bombardment by aircraft and artillery. At least 20 people were killed.
The group said Hizballah fighters "are playing a central role in the battle."
State television said that the army had "tightened the noose on the terrorists" in Qusayr.
Also on May 19, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in Moscow that he hopes an international conference to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict will be held early next month.
Washington and Moscow have agreed to try to bring Syria's regime and opposition to the negotiating table, but no date has been set.
Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters
Moscow, Tehran Move Forward On Plans For Iran-Designed Drone Factory in Russia
Russia and Iran are moving forward on plans to establish a factory in Russia aimed at producing some 6,000 Iran-designed drones of the type Moscow has used in the Ukraine war, according to The Wall Street Journal, which cited officials in a U.S.-aligned country. Moscow and Tehran seek to produce a faster drone to better challenge Ukrainian air defenses, the officials said. Washington last month warned that Moscow and Tehran were considering construction of a drone-making plant in Russia.
Former Iranian President Khatami Joins In Calls For Political Change Amid Growing Unrest
Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has joined opposition figure and ex-Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi in calls for political change as the country continues to be stricken with widespread anti-government protests.
"What is evident today is widespread discontent," the 79-year-old Khatami said on February 5 in remarks carried on local media.
He added that "there is no sign of the ruling system's desire for reform and avoiding the mistakes of the past and present."
Khatami, the reformist who served as president from 1997 until 2005, said he hoped "nonviolent civil methods [will] "force the governing system to change its approach and accept reforms."
"Iran and Iranians need and are ready for a fundamental transformation whose outline is drawn by the pure 'Woman, life, freedom' movement," he added.
Iran has been beset with widening unrest since the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. The 22-year-old died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious morality police for improperly wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf, or hijab.
Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of protests in cities across the country. The authorities have met the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.
The protests pose the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
Khatami's remarks come as Iran is set to mark the 44th anniversary of the revolution and follow comments on February 4 by Iranian opposition figure Musavi, who called for a "free" referendum in Iran and the drafting of a new constitution.
Musavi, 80, who has been under house arrest since 2011, made the call in a statement in which he said Iranians want fundamental change based on the slogan "Woman, life, freedom" -- which many have been chanting during recent antiestablishment protests.
Meanwhile, on February 5, Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pardoned "tens of thousands" of prisoners, including many arrested in the recent anti-government protests, state media reported.
"Prisoners not facing charges of spying for foreign agencies, having direct contact with foreign agents, committing intentional murder and injury, committing destruction and arson of state property, or not having a private plaintiff in their case will be pardoned," said state media, which added that the pardons were part of activities related to the anniversary of the revolution.
With reporting AFP and Reuters
European Ban On Russian Diesel, Other Oil Products Takes Effect
Europe on February 5 imposed a ban on Russian diesel fuel and other refined oil products, slashing energy dependency on Moscow and seeking to further crimp the Kremlin's fossil-fuel earnings as punishment for invading Ukraine. The ban comes along with a price cap agreed by the G7 democracies. The goal is to reduce the profits funding Moscow's budget and war. Europe has already banned Russian coal and most crude oil, while Moscow has cut off most shipments of natural gas. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Ukraine Says It Will Not Strike Russian Territory With New Missiles
Ukraine will not use longer-range weapons pledged by the United States to hit Russian territory and will only target Russian units in occupied Ukrainian territory, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on February 5. The United States confirmed on February 3 that a new rocket that would double Ukraine's strike range was included in a $2.175 billion U.S. military aid package to help Kyiv fight back Russian forces. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Qatar Sends Envoy To Afghan Capital To Meet With Taliban
An envoy for Qatar's foreign minister visited the Afghan capital on February 5 and met with the Taliban administration's acting foreign minister, according to an Afghan Foreign Ministry statement. The visit comes after the Taliban administration placed restrictions on women's education and NGO work, which Qatar labelled "deeply concerning" amid widespread international criticism. Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani, the special envoy of Qatar's foreign minister, took part in meetings with the Taliban-led government's acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Kabul, officials said. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Germany Has 'Hundreds' Of Pieces Of Ukraine War Crime Evidence
Germany's prosecutor-general said on February 5 that his office had collected "hundreds" of pieces of evidence showing war crimes by Russian forces in Ukraine, calling for an international effort to bring leaders to justice. "At the moment we are focusing on mass killings in Bucha and attacks on Ukraine's civil infrastructure," prosecutor Peter Frank told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. He said the goal was now to "prepare for a possible later court case -- whether in Germany or with our foreign partners or an international court."
Iran Detains Journalist After Detaining Her Sister
Iranian authorities have detained a journalist at a reformist publication, local media reported on February 5, as her sister, also a journalist, remains in custody after reporting on Mahsa Amini's death. Elnaz Mohammadi, a reporter for reformist newspaper Hammihan, was detained at the Evin prosecutor's office in Tehran after she had gone there "for an explanation," reported Shargh, another reformist daily. It was not immediately clear why Mohammadi had been summoned there. Her sister, Elaheh Mohammadi, was arrested on September 29 after reporting for Hammihan from Amini's funeral.
Iran's Leader Pardons 'Large Number' Of Protest-Related Prisoners
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has pardoned "tens of thousands" of prisoners, including many arrested in recent anti-government protests over security-related charges, state media reported on February 5. "Prisoners not facing charges of spying for foreign agencies, having direct contact with foreign agents, committing intentional murder and injury, committing destruction and arson of state property, or not having a private plaintiff in their case will be pardoned," state media said. The pardons were announced in honor of the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Pervez Musharraf, Pakistani Military Ruler Who Never Overcame Dangerous Foes, Dies At 79
Pakistan lost one of its most influential and polarizing figures with the death of General Pervez Musharraf, who died at a hospital in Dubai on February 5 at the age of 79 after a prolonged illness.
General Musharraf took over the presidency of the nuclear-armed country on the back of a bloodless 1999 military coup, but was forced out of office in 2008 amid scandal and efforts by his political rivals to impeach him and even briefly faced a death-sentence verdict for alleged treason before a court overturned it.
Upon assuming power following the bloodless military coup, Musharraf promised to bring progress and harmony to Pakistan.
"I wish to inform you that the armed forces have moved in as a last resort to prevent any further destabilization," he said at the time. "I wish to assure you that the situation in the country is perfectly calm, stable, and under control. I request you all to remain calm and support your armed forces in the reestablishment of order to pave the way for a prosperous future for Pakistan."
Fighting The Taliban
Musharraf's rule was complicated by the political realities that emerged after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
He openly supported Washington by joining the global war on terrorism. But he had to balance that decision against the rise of anti-Americanism at home after the fight came to neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan's restive northwest.
He achieved some success in his efforts to modernize Pakistan by creating a more open media environment, expanding the middle class, holding elections, and allowing key politicians to return from exile.
But he failed to overcome opposition to his highly unpopular moves to root out extremism and separatism on Pakistani soil, to improve Islamabad's often uneasy relations with neighboring states, or to suppress his most dangerous political foes -- some of whom came back to haunt him.
He survived at least five purported assassination attempts by Islamist militant groups or other enemies between 2000 and 2014.
Born in New Delhi in 1943, Mushrraf's family migrated to Pakistan in 1947 after it was established as an independent state. His formative years were spent in Turkey, where his father worked as a diplomat.
Musharraf joined the Pakistani Army's officer corps at the age of 18, rising through the ranks over the next few decades to become its chief in 1998.
He was appointed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but differences quickly emerged -- a sign of the fierce political rivalry to come.
Musharraf disagreed with Sharif's peace overtures toward India and launched a botched offensive against Indian forces in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. This fanned his disagreements with Sharif's civilian government, ultimately resulting in a coup in October 1999.
Musharraf titled himself chief executive and consolidated power quickly. He appointed himself president in 2001, giving him final say in Pakistani affairs.
'The Path Of Development'
He quickly sided with Washington after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.
In a televised speech days after the 9/11 attacks, he told Pakistanis he had allied with Washington to save his country's critical security and geopolitical interests.
"At this moment, our decisions may have far-reaching and wide repercussions," Musharraf said. "The worst results, God forbid, may endanger our territorial integrity and our survival."
The alliance prompted a domestic backlash, as pro-Taliban hard-liners opposed his policies. But in a major policy speech in January 2002, Musharraf indicated he was determined to lead Pakistan on the path of moderation:
"Do we want to turn Pakistan into a theocratic state? Or do we want Pakistan to become a progressive, dynamic, Islamic welfare state?" he asked. "The choice of our people is absolutely clear. And their decision is to take the path of development."
His efforts produced mixed results at best and provoked two assassination attempts masterminded by Al-Qaeda-linked militants in 2003.
Islamabad benefited enormously from allying with Washington, as it received tens of billions of dollars in military and civilian assistance. Major Western donors wrote off Islamabad's debts and Pakistan was formally declared a major non-NATO U.S. ally.
Defeated By Radical Backlash
But Musharraf's failure to confront or eradicate pro-Taliban radicals backfired. Under his watch, Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters who had been chased out of Afghanistan recuperated across the border in Pakistan and, by the end of 2007, emerged as a major challenge to Pakistan's stability and security.
Musharraf's failure to handle extremist clerics at Islamabad's Red Mosque eventually ended in a bloody showdown in July 2007. Dozens died in a weeklong siege of the mosque. The confrontation provoked Pakistani Taliban to mount attacks across Pakistan and capture large swathes of territories in the northwest.
That year he was unable to manipulate the country's political scene, as he had done for years.
His firing of a popular Supreme Court chief justice in March 2007 prompted a countrywide protest movement led by lawyers.
By year's end the movement grew strong enough to force him to give up his leadership of the military, and to step down as president in 2008. Afterward he went into self-imposed exile in London and Dubai.
Musharraf returned to Pakistan in March 2013 in an attempt to make a political comeback -- hoping to be voted into parliament and position himself to become prime minister.
But those hopes were dashed when he was barred from taking part in the general elections and placed under house arrest amid a litany of court cases related to his final years in office.
In March 2014, Musharraf was formally charged by a special tribunal on five counts of high treason -- charges which highlighted tensions between Pakistan's military and its civilian government, which initiated the case.
The treason charges stemmed from Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule, followed by his dismissal of high-ranking judges, less than a month after his controversial reelection as president in 2007.
Musharraf was also charged with murder and conspiracy to murder for allegedly failing to protect his political rival and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007 while campaigning for general elections.
In another case he was investigated for the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti, a senior Baluch leader who died in a military operation ordered by Musharraf in August 2006. He was also tried for his role in the 2007 siege of the Red Mosque.
Musharraf tried hard to defend his record.
He told the court at his formal indictment for treason that he "put the country on the path of progress after 1999 when the country was being called a failed and defaulted state," asking the judges, "Is this the way to reward someone for being loyal to the country and loving the country?"
Musharraf also labeled attacks against him as a vendetta aimed at maligning his achievements and a conspiracy to keep him out of politics.
"I helped build a lot of roads and dams. I promoted telecommunication and information technology and vastly enhanced Pakistan's defense capabilities and made it very strong," Musharraf said. "I brought an industrial and agricultural revolution and helped propel the country's economy into one of the top 11 global economies."
Would-be assassins continued to try to kill Musharraf in the midst of the lengthy court proceedings against him. He narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in April 2014 while being transported in a convoy from an army hospital to his home.
But even with the treason charge hanging over him, in 2016, Pakistan's government allowed to travel abroad for medical treatment. He left his country and reportedly took up residence between London and Dubai, still vowing to clear his name and return to Pakistan.
Musharraf continued to appear on a controversial weekly television show on which he opined on Pakistani politics and current affairs.
A year later, a Pakistani antiterrorism court in Rawalpindi declared Musharraf a fugitive for "absconding" amid the ongoing charges in the Bhutto assassination case and ordered his assets seized.
In 2019, senior officials from his All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) party disclosed that he had been hospitalized due to a "reaction" from amyloidosis, a rare condition that can lead to organ failure.
Later the same year, a closed trial in Islamabad convicted him in absentia of high treason and other wrongdoing over the 2007 suspension of the constitution, and sentenced him to death.
Pakistan's powerful military responded publicly to condemn the verdict and accused the courts of ignoring due process.
Less than a month later, in January 2020, the Lahore High Court agreed with Musharraf's appeal and declared the trial in the capital case against him unconstitutional and politically motivated.
Reports said a special flight would travel from Pakistan to Dubai to repatriate Musharraf's body, according to the wishes of Musharraf's family.
Pakistani Taliban Commanders Killed In Northwest
Pakistani police killed two commanders of the Pakistani Taliban militant group in the country's northwest, a local officer said February 4. Regional police officer Muhammad Ali Gandapur said the slain fighters were wanted in connection with the killing of five police officers and were also involved in attacks on security checkpoints. The government had a bounty on the two men. Police arrested four fighters and recovered gunpowder, hand grenades, electronic detonators, and Kalashnikov rifles in the same intelligence operation in the Hund village of the Swabi district. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Ukraine Says West's Reluctance On Jets 'Will Cost Us More Lives'
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov has said the reluctance of Kyiv's Western allies to send jet fighters to aid in the battle against Russian forces will "cost us more lives," even as he repeated warnings that Moscow is poised to launch a major new offensive in the nearly yearlong war.
"I am sure that we will win this war. I am sure we will liberate all the occupied territories," Reznikov told a Kyiv news conference on February 5. But without Western supplies of jet fighters, "it will cost us more lives."
Western leaders have said it is not practical to send such jets to Ukraine given the amount of time it would take to train pilots and maintenance crews and amid fears of widening the conflict.
At the same news conference, Reznikov vowed his country will not use newly provided long-range weapons to target sites inside Russia amid the same fears of escalating tensions.
"Our partners decided to provide us with weapons capable of firing at a distance of 150 kilometers," Reznikov said.
"We always tell our partners that we take an obligation not to use the weapons of foreign partners against the territory of Russia, only against their units in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine for the purpose of de-occupying our land," he added.
Reznikov said Russia could launch a new offensive later this month for symbolic reasons as the war approaches the anniversary of the February 24, 2022, invasion, but that Ukraine was prepared to hold off any major military onslaught, echoing comments earlier this week by Ukraine's General Staff and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Reznikov's remarks came as Ukraine's military, in its regular update on February 5, claimed that 131,290 Russian military personnel had been killed in Ukraine since Moscow invaded last year.
The Ukrainian General Staff said 700 Russian soldiers were killed just over the past day.
The update -- which is often higher than Western estimates -- also said Russia had lost 3,220 tanks, 6,405 armored vehicles, and 2,226 artillery systems since the war began.
Citing U.S. and other Western officials, The New York Times reported earlier this month that the number of Russian troops killed and wounded in Ukraine was approaching 200,000 in total.
Heavy fighting was under way on February 5 in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in the eastern region of Donetsk, according to Yevgeny Prigozhin the head of Russia's Wagner mercenary group.
"In the northern quarters of [Bakhmut], fierce battles are going on for every street, every house, every stairwell," Prigozhin said on Telegram, adding that Ukrainian forces were not retreating.
"The Ukrainian armed forces are fighting to the last," he said.
Bakhmut has been virtually razed by repeated Russian artillery bombardments as Moscow has been trying to seize control of the city for months.
Zelenskiy said on February 3 that Ukrainian forces would fight for Bakhmut "as long as we can."
The British Defense Ministry said that "over the last week, Russia has continued to make small advances in its attempt to encircle" Bakhmut.
"The M03 and the H32 -- the two main roads into the city for Ukrainian defenders -- are likely now both threatened by direct fire, following the Russian advances," it said in its regular update on February 5.
In the neighboring Luhansk region, Ukrainian forces remained in control of the village of Bilohorivka, the regional governor said, rejecting claims by some Russian-installed officials that the village was captured by the Russian Army.
"Our troops remain in their positions, nobody has captured Bilohorivka, nobody has entered there, there is no enemy there," Serhiy Hayday told the Ukrainian national broadcaster.
He said the situation was "tense," as "the number of Russian attacks has increased," but he added that "all of the [attacks] have been repulsed" by Ukrainian troops.
Three people were wounded on February 5 by two Russian missiles in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, according to local officials. Kharkiv Governor Oleh Synehubov said the missiles hit a residential building in the city center.
The claims cannot be independently verified.
In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz again rejected concerns that Berlin's recent decision to supply Ukraine with its Leopard tanks could make Germany an active party to the conflict with Russia.
"We have carefully weighed every arms shipment [to Ukraine], coordinated them closely with our allies, first and foremost with the United States," Scholz told Germany's Bild am Sonntag, in comments seen by dpa ahead of publication on February 5.
"This joint approach prevents an escalation of the war," said the German chancellor, who has faced much criticism over his initial reluctance to send the Leopards.
Scholz also said that Russian President Vladimir Putin in his telephone conversations "has not made any threats against me or Germany."
Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this week said Putin had threatened him with a missile strike that would "only take a minute." The Kremlin said Johnson was lying.
Scholz said the conversations he had with Putin made it clear they had very different views of the war in Ukraine. "I make it very clear to Putin that Russia has sole responsibility for the war," Scholz said.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and dpa
Opposition Figure Musavi Calls For 'Free' Referendum In Iran, Drafting Of New Constitution
Iranian opposition figure Mir Hossein Musavi has called for a "free" referendum in Iran and the drafting of a new constitution. Musavi who has been under house arrest since 2011, made the call in a statement released on February 4 in which he said Iranians want fundamental change based on the slogan "Woman, life, freedom," which many have been chanting during recent antiestablishment protests. Musavi said the the three words are "the seeds of a bright future free of oppression, poverty, humiliation, and discrimination." Musavi, his wife, university professor Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi were put under house arrest in February 2011 for challenging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the disputed 2009 presidential vote and criticizing human rights abuses. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.
Venezuela's Maduro, Iranian Diplomat Discuss Defense Against 'External Pressures'
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the visiting Iranian foreign minister have discussed the need for "vigilance in defending their national interests against external pressures," according to a statement released on February 4. The Caracas visit by Foreign Minister Ossein Amir-Abdollahian underlined the strength of an alliance between two countries seen as outcasts by much of the international community, both of them subject to U.S. sanctions. Maduro received Abdollahian on the evening of February 3 in the Miraflores presidential palace after the Iranian minister arrived from Managua, Nicaragua. "I am sure that our relations will continue to strengthen for technological, industrial, scientific, and cultural exchanges that benefit both peoples," Maduro wrote on Twitter, calling the meeting "productive."
At Least Two Civilians Wounded In Bomb Blast In Kabul
At least two civilians were wounded in a bomb blast in Kabul city on February 4, police said. Kabul police spokesman Khalid Zadran said that the blast was caused by a magnetic bomb that was attached to a private vehicle. An investigative team was inspecting the scene of the explosion, police added. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack that comes after several weeks of calm. When the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, the Islamic State group intensified its attacks in Afghanistan, mainly targeting religious minorities, members of the Taliban, and areas where foreign diplomats live.
WHO Report On Ukraine Health Emergency Sparks U.S.-Russia Dispute
The United States and Russia faced off on February 4 over a World Health Organization (WHO) report on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, with Moscow saying it was politically motivated and Washington calling for it to be swiftly updated. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus's report was presented to the organization's executive board, on which both Russia and the United States sit. It covered events in the first nine months of 2022 and classed the situation in Ukraine, which Russia invaded on February 24, as one of eight acute global health emergencies. The report documented more than 14,000 civilian casualties, with 17.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and 7.5 million Ukrainian refugees displaced across Europe. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
U.S. Weighs Sanctions For Chinese Companies Over Iran Surveillance Buildup
The United States is considering new sanctions on Chinese surveillance companies over sales to Iran's security forces, The Wall Street Journal reported on February 4, citing people familiar with the matter. U.S. authorities are in advanced discussions on the sanctions and have zeroed in on Tiandy Technologies Co, an electrical equipment manufacturer based in the Chinese city of Tianjin whose products have been sold to units of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the report added. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Three Bulgarians Detained At Border With North Macedonia
North Macedonia's Interior Ministry has said that three Bulgarian citizens were detained on February 4 at the Deve Bair border crossing with Bulgaria for disturbing public order.
A group of Bulgarian citizens were waiting to enter North Macedonia on February 4 to pay their respects at the tomb of revolutionary Goce Delchev on the occasion of the 151st anniversary of his birth.
Delchev is claimed by both Skopje and Sofia as a hero in the fight for the liberation from the Ottoman Empire.
The ministry announced on February 4 that the three were detained for disturbing public order and peace.
The three Bulgarians, identified only as G.Z. (35), A.H. (50), and R.H. (54), "first behaved verbally impudently and inappropriately using most derogatory words and then tried to physically attack the police officers who took legal action, detaining the three while work is being done to completely clear up the case," the Interior Ministry said.
The ministry said that all border crossings between the two Balkan neighbors were forced to close for several hours because of a fault in the border-control system. Border traffic resumed after the fault was fixed, it said.
Earlier this week, the interior ministers of North Macedonia and Bulgaria met to discuss tensions between their two countries and measures aimed at preventing violence during Delchev's upcoming celebration.
Oliver Spasovski, interior minister of North Macedonia, and his Bulgarian counterpart, Ivan Demerdziev, met on January 30 in Skopje to reduce tensions between the two countries, vowing that "no incident" will be tolerated during the Fberuary 4 celebration in Skopje.
The announcement that a larger number of Bulgarian citizens will attend the celebration of the Delchev’s birth caused further concern.
A ceremony attended by state officials was conducted under strong police presence at Delchev's grave at the Church of Holy Salvation in Skopje on February 4.
Bilateral tensions were heightened earlier this month after the beating in Ohrid of Hristijan Pendikov, a man who identifies as Bulgarian and is an employee of one of the Bulgarian cultural clubs in North Macedonia that some Macedonians regard as provocative.
Following the incident, Bulgaria recalled its ambassador to Skopje.
Demerdziev said on January 30 that he and Spasovski reached an understanding that such incidents should not be allowed in the Republic of North Macedonia and he was assured that the case will be investigated fully and objectively.
Relations between the two neighbors have long been strained by deep cultural, historical, and linguistic differences that spilled into the open three years ago when Sofia invoked its veto power to stall North Macedonia's negotiations to join the European Union.
Sofia finally agreed to withdraw the veto last year.
Pakistan Blocks Wikipedia Over 'Blasphemous Content'
Wikipedia was blocked in Pakistan on February 4 after authorities censored the website for hosting "blasphemous content" in the latest blow to digital rights in the deeply conservative country. Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan, and social-media giants Facebook and YouTube have previously been banned for publishing content deemed sacrilegious. Pakistan had earlier in the week given Wikipedia a 48 hour ultimatum to remove material, without publicly specifying its exact objections.
Ukraine, Russia Exchange Prisoners; Kyiv Recovers Bodies Of Foreign Humanitarian Volunteers
Russia and Ukraine on February 4 announced an exchange of prisoners that led to the release of 63 Russians and 116 Ukrainians and the return of the bodies of two foreign volunteers who were involved in humanitarian work in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk.
The Russian Ministry of Defense reported the return of its 63 Russian soldiers in a statement on its Telegram channel. The statement said that among those released were persons belonging to a "sensitive category," without elaborating.
It added that the exchange was facilitated "thanks to the mediation of the leadership of the United Arab Emirates."
Ukrainian authorities, meanwhile, reported that 116 prisoners had returned home.
Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine's presidential office, wrote on Telegram that among them were "defenders of Mariupol, Kherson partisans, snipers from the Bakhmut area."
In addition, Yermak wrote, the bodies of two dead foreign volunteers -- Briton Christopher Matthew Parry and New Zealander Andrew Tobias Matthew Bagshaw -- as well as the body of deceased Ukrainian volunteer Yevhen Kulik, who served in the French Foreign Legion, were returned to Ukraine.
Parry and Bagshaw, two volunteers who were helping with the evacuation of civilians and delivering humanitarian aid, were reported missing on January 7 in Donetsk.
They had last been seen the previous day on their way from Kramatorsk to Soledar, where heavy fighting had been under way between Ukrainian defenders and Russian forces.
Soon after, the family of one of the two volunteers said that the men were killed during an attempt to carry out a humanitarian evacuation.
Yermak also published a short video purporting to show released Ukrainian prisoners traveling by bus and two photos of men holding Ukrainian flags in front of a bus.
U.S. Attorney General Allows First Transfer Of Russian Oligarch's Confiscated Assets To Ukraine
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on February 3 that the frozen assets of a Russian oligarch will be transferred to Ukraine. "Today I am announcing that I have authorized the first-ever transfer of confiscated Russian assets for use in Ukraine," he said. The assets were seized after the indictment of oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev on sanctions-evasion charges. Garland said the assets will be transferred to the State Department to be spent "in support of the people of Ukraine." Garland made the announcement during a meeting with Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
Serbian Parliament Adopts Government Report On Negotiations With Kosovo
The Serbian parliament on February 3 adopted the government's report on negotiations with Kosovo. The vote was 154-23 while nine members did not vote. The parliament discussed the report during a two-day session that began after Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic received the European Union's proposal for normalizing relations with Kosovo. The proposal, which has not been fully released, has the backing of the United States and the European Union. Vucic discussed some of the provisions of the proposal on February 2 and warned that Serbia could become isolated if it rejects the proposal. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.
U.S. Warned Turkey On Exports Seen To Boost Russia's War Effort, Official Says
The United States has warned Turkey in recent days about the export to Russia of chemicals, microchips, and other products that can be used in Moscow's war effort in Ukraine, and it could move to enforce existing bans, according to a senior U.S. official. Brian Nelson, the U.S. Treasury Department's top sanctions official, visited Turkish government and private-sector officials on February 2-3 to urge more cooperation in disrupting the flow of such goods, the official said, requesting anonymity to discuss the talks. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Iran Slams IAEA Chief After Centrifuge Report; U.S., Allies Criticize Tehran's Response
Iran slammed UN nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) raised concerns over covert changes to equipment at its Fordow uranium-enrichment plant, state media said on February 4. The IAEA said in a confidential report seen by AFP on February 1 that Iran had substantially modified an interconnection between two centrifuge clusters enriching uranium to up to 60 percent at thhe Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP), without giving prior notice. "We gave a letter to the agency that an inspector...made a mistake and gave an incorrect report," Iranian nuclear chief Mohamad Eslami was quoted as saying by IRNA. The United States issued a joint statement with France, the United Kingdom, and Germany on February 3 criticizing Iran's "inadequate" response to the report on its nuclear program.
Zelenskiy Says Situation In Eastern Ukraine Getting More Difficult As Odesa Battles To Restore Power
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned on February 4 that Russia was throwing more and more forces into battle and that the situation on the front lines in the eastern parts of the country was getting more severe.
"The occupier is throwing more and more of his forces into breaking down our defenses," Zelenskiy said in his nighty video address, adding that the situation was "very difficult" in Bakhmut, Vuhledar, Lyman, and other areas.
His warning came as Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko said that power had been restored to critical infrastructure in the southern port city of Odesa following an accident at a substation.
"Power to all critical infrastructure has been restored. The city will therefore have water and heat," Halushchenko said on Facebook.
"About one-third of the city's consumers now have lighting," he said, without offering more details.
Earlier, regional Governor Maksym Marchenko said a "serious" accident at a high-voltage substation had left a half-million households without power in Odesa, confirming earlier reports about an accident at a facility that was previously targeted in Russian strikes.
"A serious accident occurred at one of the energy facilities, which caused a fire," he said, adding that emergency measures were being taken.
Earlier, an air-raid alert for the whole of Ukraine was canceled without any reports of Russian shelling as Ukrainian defenders faced renewed attacks by Moscow's troops in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk over the past 24 hours.
The alert, which lasted for about two hours in the morning, was the third in two days. No massive Russian strikes on civilian and infrastructure targets were reported on February 3 either.
Amid warnings that a massive Russian offensive is in the making as Moscow's unprovoked invasion nears the one-year mark, the military said fighting had intensified in the Donbas.
"The enemy continues offensive operations in the Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Novopavlivka areas [of Donetsk], suffering heavy losses," Ukraine's General Staff said in its report.
Battles have been raging for months for the city of Bakhmut, where waves of Russian attackers are piling increasing pressure on the Ukrainian forces.
Witnesses have told RFE/RL that street fighting is under way in Bakhmut, with building-by-building combat on the outskirts of the city.
Zelenskiy said on February 3 that Ukrainian forces will continue their fight to hold on to Bakhmut. "Nobody will give away Bakhmut. We will fight for as long as we can. We consider Bakhmut our fortress," he said.
Zelenskiy's comments come after U.S. media reports saying the United States had advised Ukraine to withdraw from Bakhmut. U.S. officials quoted by Bloomberg said this would allow Kyiv to gather forces for a spring offensive.
The General Staff said on February 4 that the Ukrainian military also repelled Russian attacks in the Grekivka, Nevske, Kreminna, and Dibrova settlements in the Luhansk region.
Russian forces carried out 20 air strikes and three missile strikes, the military said, targeting civilian infrastructure of the Kharkiv and Mykolayiv regions, causing civilian casualties.
Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces "have a chance" of beating back a looming Russian offensive if supplied with the right Western weapons.
"If weapon [supplies] are accelerated, specifically long-range weapons, not only will we not abandon Bakhmut but we will also begin to remove the [Russian] occupiers from the Donbas," he said.
Zelenskiy said European sanctions should aim to ensure Russia cannot rebuild its military capability.
On February 4, Zelenskiy said he discussed the "further expansion of capabilities" of Ukraine's military in a call with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Zelenskiy said he also thanked Sunak for the start of training of Ukrainian crews on Challenger 2 tanks.
"The prime minister said he was focused on ensuring the U.K.'s defensive military equipment reached the front line as quickly as possible," Sunak's office said in a readout of the call.
"Both leaders agreed that it was vital that international partners accelerated their assistance to Ukraine to help seize the opportunity to push Russian forces back," it added.
The United States on February 3 announced a fresh $2.2 billion package of military aid for Ukraine that will include rockets with a range twice the distance of the rockets Ukraine now has.
The Ground-Launched Small-Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) is included in the package announced by the Pentagon.
GLSDBs have a range roughly double that of the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) already supplied.
Kyiv is requesting more powerful modern weapons, including F-16 fighter jets, even after securing pledges from its Western allies to send tanks as its forces brace for an expected new Russian onslaught in the east.
Meanwhile, Portugal will send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said on February 4, without specifying how many will be shipped.
Costa added that Portugal is in talks with Germany to obtain parts needed for the repair of a number of inoperable Leopard tanks in Portugal's inventory.
"I know how many tanks will be (sent to Ukraine) but that will be announced at the appropriate time," Costa told the Lusa news agency during a trip to the Central African Republic.
The EU announced on February 3 that it is ramping up its military training mission for Ukraine, raising it from an initial target of 15,000 troops to up to 30,000.
With reporting by Reuters. dpa, and AFP
EU Agrees On Price Caps On Russian Refined Oil Products
European Union countries agreed to set price caps on Russian refined oil products to limit Moscow's funds for its invasion of Ukraine, the EU said on February 3. EU diplomats said the price caps are $100 per barrel on products that trade at a premium to crude, principally diesel, and $45 per barrel for products that trade at a discount, such as fuel oil. Ambassadors for the 27 EU countries agreed on the European Commission proposal, which will apply from February 5. The price caps follow a $60 per barrel cap on Russian crude that the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations imposed on December 5. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
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